Thelma Carter is an early riser. She is up by 6 a.m. to drive her great-great-granddaughter to school before going to the 7:30 Mass at Holy Name Catholic Church in Northeast. After Mass, she prepares the Communion hosts for the next morning's Mass before spending four hours as a volunteer with the Greater Washington Urban League.

With time out for her favorite television shows -- "General Hospital" and "The Oprah Winfrey Show" -- her afternoons are devoted to myriad church and community activities, including delivering meals and other necessities to senior citizens.

Some nights, Carter doesn't return to her home in the Ivy City neighborhood in Northeast until after midnight. Even her grandchildren balk at her schedule.

Thelma Carter is 87 years old.

Her love for other people keeps her moving, she said. And she couldn't imagine living any other way.

" 'Grandma was never home. She was always on the go,' " Carter said of how she wants to be remembered.

But when Carter decided to do something for herself, she quietly began working on continuing her education. For four years, she took classes one night a week from the Education for Parish Service program (EPS), which meets at Trinity College.

In November, after completing a final course requirement, she finally told her family about the goal she had set and was about to achieve. And with more than 30 members of her family there to cheer her on, Carter walked across the stage during her graduation ceremony and received an EPS certificate.

At 87, she was probably the oldest graduate of the program in its 25-year history, said Sister Mary Ann Cook, president of the EPS Foundation. The program, which requires more than 300 hours of course work, is a continuing education program for Catholic laity to learn more about the Scriptures and the history of the Catholic Church. It gives them the background needed to take leadership roles in their parishes, Cook said.

Harriet Battle, 70, knew her mother had been taking classes, but when Carter told Battle she was graduating, Battle was so excited that she began telling everyone she knew.

"My mother is a very extraordinary lady," she said. I am proud of her because she accomplished something I didn't do."

Carter, who is rarely without one of her fancy hats, said the foundation for her active life is her faith in God.

After World War II, Carter went to Okinawa, Japan, to work in an administrative position for the War Department before returning to Washington to work for the Office of the Surgeon General, from which she retired in 1982.

She had always wanted to attend college but said the demands of raising a child, working and volunteering made it virtually impossible for many years.

She first enrolled in the EPS program nearly 25 years ago with a girlfriend.

"I had submitted the application, but I just kept putting it off," Carter said. After the friend died, "I decided I would attend the EPS class."

Before beginning the program, she prayed, just as she does before tackling most things.

"When I first started, I prayed: 'Heavenly Father, keep me strong enough and well to finish this program in four years. Father, just let me live long enough to graduate,' " she said.

Over the course of four years, Carter missed only two nights of class. "And that was because I was working at the (voting) polls," she said.

In addition to her daughter, Carter has seven grandchildren, 14 great-grandchildren and 17 great-great-grandchildren. All are proud of her. One granddaughter, Deborah Watkins, 53, said the woman she calls Mama has created a standard for the rest of her family to follow.

"She beat me to it!" said Tondalia{scheck} Cox, 34, Carter's oldest great-grandchild. "I bragged about it at work." Cox plans to attend college herself someday.

Carter's achievement has inspired her younger sister, 82-year-old Florence Turner, to enroll in the same program at Trinity. Turner plans to finish in two years by taking classes two nights a week. "I can't keep up with her," said Turner, who taught for 30 years in D.C. Public Schools. "She is always doing something for others."

The EPS program's main theme was "Go and Make Disciples," a reference to Jesus's command in the Gospel of Matthew. After completing the EPS program, Carter believes she is equipped to do just that and defend her faith without fear.

"I've learned how to not do things for rewards I might get in heaven but for the goodwill of people," she said,

Her desire is to bring other people to "know the Lord Jesus with all of their heart and mind and soul," she said.

And she plans to do just that in the way she always has: loving and serving others.

Thelma Carter, 87, recently graduated from a continuing education program offered by her parish.